As What Hi-Fi? celebrates 40 years in the game, join us for a nostalgic look back at four decades of landmark products.
This is part one, featuring our pick of the best products from 1976 to 1982.
You can read all four parts of the feature by following the links below.
- The top 40 What Hi-Fi? products of all time, part 2: 1983 to 1998
- The top 40 What Hi-Fi? products of all time, part 3: 1999 to 2006
- The top 40 What Hi-Fi? products of all time, part 4: 2007 to 2016
Linn LP12 (1976)
The Linn LP12 is arguably the most popular high-end turntable of all time, in the UK at least.
Introduced in 1972, it went on to dominate the premium turntable market for decades afterwards. Linn made a range of compatible arms and cartridges too, so upgrading was easy.
The deck was well built and superbly engineered but the company has never stopped developing it.
Just about every aspect of the design from the suspension to the power supply has been revised over the years, leading to a string of incremental performance gains.
Early LP12s had a rounded, rich balance that was still lively enough to entertain. Later versions have moved more towards neutrality, enjoying greater precision and insight as a result.
MORE: Linn Majik LP12 review
Technics SL1200 (1976)
We have a confession. We’ve never considered the SL1200, or any of its subsequent variants, class-leaders when it comes to sound quality. But that doesn’t mean we don’t admire them, or that we don’t badly want to own one of the originals.
Every version we’ve ever tested was built brilliantly – solid and beautifully engineered. This was one of the main reasons they were so successful with DJs across the globe.
They’re easy to use too, with plenty of flexibility when it comes to positioning and cartridge matching.
We love these decks because they’re tough and fuss-free. With a bit of effort, they’re upgradable too, but they sound good enough as standard to be enjoyable.
Flawless? Definitely not, but that doesn’t stop the SL1200 in any of its forms from being considered a true classic.
Acoustic Research AR18 (1978)
Back in the 1970s, Acoustic Research was one of the biggest hi-fi brands around. It made a massive impact with its original turntable, but these rather ordinary-looking standmounters are what we remember the most.
In most respects they were considered a basic design even at the time. They were a two-way, sealed box design using a 20cm paper cone mid/bass and a rather unrefined 32mm tweeter.
Yet Acoustic Research took this rather ordinary recipe and turned out one of the finest budget speakers in history. The AR18s sounded lively and entertaining, but most of all they were fun.
Sure, the treble could have been sweeter and their transparency barely lived up to the word, but play some music through them and all was forgiven.
NAD 3020 (1978)
The NAD brand is based on the foundations laid by the 3020 amplifier. To date, nothing else the brand has done has made the impact of this slightly flimsy budget box.
Even back then, a power output of around 20W per channel wasn’t particularly impressive, but in use this integrated amp could drive speakers better than just about any rival.
Its smooth, full-bodied balance worked brilliantly with the less than refined budget kit of the day, delivering the sound with unmistakable grace.
Current amplifiers may be ahead on transparency and build quality, but find one of these in working order and it would still be a joy to listen to.
MORE: NAD D 3020 review
More after the break
Rega Planar 3 (1978)
We doubt there has ever been a more dominant turntable than Rega’s Planar 3. Ever since its introduction in 1978, it has been the go-to middle market record player, and little has changed in the subsequent years.
The various iterations of this deck have won our sub-thousand pound turntable award so many times we’ve lost count.
What’s the Planar 3’s secret? It’s a simple, well-made design based on sensible engineering principles. Sure, the company has refined just about every component over time, most notably the introduction of the then revolutionary RB300 arm in 1983.
But, in essence, the Planar 3 remains what it has always been; a fuss-free performer that makes our records sound great.
A&R Cambridge A60 (1979)
If the NAD was the king of the budget amps, then the A60 is what you bought when you wanted to upgrade. The A60 was the first product from A&R Cambridge, which later morphed into Arcam, and what a monster hit it was.
Look past the unassuming appearance and you’ll find a product that combined sensible features, solid build and class-leading sound quality.
The A60 was an easy-going and refined performer. It sounded good with a wide range of recordings and partnering kit.
This wooden-cased unit was as engaging as they came with a wonderful combination of finesse, rhythmic talent and dynamic subtlety in its armoury.
Sony Walkman (1979)
At first it seemed like a bit of a niche idea. A portable cassette player, supplied with lightweight headphones. Would people want to listen to music on the move? The answer to that question seems obvious today, but back then there were doubts.
As it happened, the Walkman was a king size hit for Sony. There were plenty of models ranging from budget right through to the premium-priced WM-D6C, something better known as the Walkman Professional.
This unit sounded good enough to rival some of the best domestic cassette decks around but could still just about fit into your pocket.
The death of cassette led to Sony using the Walkman name on other portable products, but none of these made the same impact on the market as those portable tape machines. And now there's a gold Walkman...
Dual CS505 (1981)
The likes of Pro-Ject may dominate the budget turntable market today but back in the 1980s, it was Dual with the CS505.
It was a pretty sophisticated deck with a proper suspended sub-chassis, which made it less sensitive to positioning, and a degree of automation in operation.
Later versions looked less budget with the arrival of some smart wooden plinths, but the oily bits stayed pretty much the same.
This was a tidy, well-balanced performer. It dug up a decent amount of detail and delivered it in an entertaining way.
The Dual delivered satisfying results without putting too much of a strain on the entry-level kit it was usually partnered with. Oddly enough, that’s the quality that made it so good in a budget context.
Wharfedale Diamond 1 (1982)
Back in 1982, no one would have believed the Wharfedale Diamond would dominate the budget-speaker market for generations to come.
Standing just 24cm high, the originals were tiny, but delivered a huge amount of bass and had a rolled-off, smooth tonal balance. The Diamonds were much cheaper than their competition too, costing £65 while the rest hovered closer to £100.
Subsequent generations saw improved tweeters and better finishes, and the current Diamond 220 speakers are arguably the best Diamonds ever. Yet, for that touch of magic that’s rare in hi-fi, it’s the originals we hanker after.
Michell Gyrodec (1982)
The Gyrodec is as much a piece of engineering art as it is a turntable. Still available today, this player has hardly changed in appearance since it first appeared.
It hasn’t needed to, because Michell got the engineering spot-on right from the start. This is a beautifully made deck built to the kind of standard that routinely embarrassed rivals at double the money.
If you like Meccano you’ll love putting this deck together – it arrives in bits. But the clear instructions and Michell’s logical approach to the design mean it’s a breeze to construct.
Once up and running it sounds detailed, expressive and graceful. Others may prioritise rhythm or dynamic contrast, but, even today, the Gyrodec remains what it has always been: a fabulous buy.
Read part two of our feature below: